Edward Huffaker, A Kitty Hawk Visitor the Wrights Disliked

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

Edward Huffaker was another of the young men that Chanute sponsored. He was building a glider for Chanute and Chanute prevailed on the Wrights to allow Huffaker to test the glider at Kitty Hawk while the Wrights were camping there during their own 1901 glider experiments.

It wasn’t long after Huffaker’s arrival that the Wrights found he was a disagreeable presence, unlike the friendly feeling for George Spratt, another protégé of Chanute who joined them.

On June 26 and 27, 1901, Chanute visited the Wrights on the way to Chuckey, Tennessee where Huffaker was building a glider designed by Chanute. Two days after visiting Huffaker, Chanute wrote Wilbur asking for his permission for Huffaker to bring the glider to their camp and attend the Wrights’ test flights at Kitty Hawk. Huffaker could test Chanute’s glider and be of help to the Wrights. Chanute assured Wilbur that he was reliable.

Wilbur agreed to his attendance as a favor to Chanute.

On paper Huffaker appeared to be a valuable person to have around. He had attended college at Emory and Henry where he graduated in 1876, and completed a master’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia in 1883.

He was interested in aeronautics and began making small glider models in 1892. From 1895 to mid 1896 he worked for Samuel Langley at the Smithsonian Institution, designing wings for Langley’s Aerodromes, and now he was working for Chanute.

When Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian in 1899 asking for information on aeronautics, one of the papers he received was “Soaring Flight” by Huffaker.

Langley praised, “Soaring Flight.” In the introduction to the paper Langley wrote, “I put trust in the good faith with which he reports his observations and in the conscientious care with which he has made them.”

Langley, who was fastidious, didn’t approve of Huffaker’s habits. He read documents with his feet on the table and he chewed tobacco and would squirt a stream of tobacco juice into a spittoon on the other side of the room.

The Wrights arrived at Kitty Hawk on May 10th and established their camp four miles south at Kill Devil Hills where they were soon plagued by mosquitoes. When Huffaker arrived one week later, Orville wrote to Katharine, “He can’t decide which is worse, the mosquitoes or Huffaker.”

Orville and Wilbur found it difficult not to laugh when they first saw the glider Huffaker brought with him.

The wing struts for the 5-wing glider were made of cardboard tubing instead of wood. The wings were designed to fold for easy storage and the fabric was attached to the wings so as to automatically vary their curvature with changes in the wind.

The design was in keeping with Chanute’s idea that a glider could be made that would provide automatic control in flight.

When Chanute saw that Huffaker had substituted cardboard for wood in the struts, he was not happy. He decided to go ahead with test flights at Kitty Hawk anyway.

At Kitty Hawk, the glider was found to be too frail to fly and failed to survive a heavy rain. Huffaker quickly gave up any attempt to fly before Chanute even arrived in camp.

Wilbur took a picture of the rain-soaked remains of the glider and later sent a picture of it to Spratt with the advisory, “If you feel the you have not got much to show for your work and money expended, get out this picture and you will feel encouraged.”

During the remainder of Huffaker’s stay in camp he helped launch the Wright’s glider and took notes. He and Spratt also provided some technical help when they advised the Wrights that the pitching problem Wilbur was experiencing during flight might be caused by the sudden reversal of the center of pressure on the wings.

Overall Huffaker was amazed at what the Wrights were achieving with their glider. The Wrights didn’t share his enthusiasm. They knew that there were serious theoretical problems with lift and control yet to be solved. Wilbur was so depressed on the trip home that he said man might never fly in his lifetime.

Chanute had instructed Huffaker to keep a daily record of the gliding experiments until his arrival. When the Wrights examined the notes after they returned home, they found them to be “inaccurate, as the man was shiftless.”

What really infuriated Wilbur was that Huffaker would lay the stopwatches and anemometers in the sand and use Wilbur’s camera box as a stool.

Also, the Wrights, sons of a Bishop, weren’t appreciative of Huffaker’s habit of delivering lectures on character building.

Wilbur thought he was “priggish and lazy.”

Wilbur thought he looked a bit sheepish when he finally left camp on August 8 with Wilbur’s blanket. He had the habit of borrowing tools and personal items without permission and not taking care of them.

He was still wearing the shirt he had put on soon after his arrival. On top of other everything else, Huffaker’s personal hygiene was poor.

The Wrights arrived home on Thursday, August 22. Katharine wrote her father, “They can only talk how disagreeable Mr. Huffaker was.”

A year later the Wrights were still upset. Chanute had written them about sending another protégé to their camp. Wilbur wrote back, “It was our experience last year that my brother and myself, while alone, or nearly so, could do more work in one week, than in two weeks after his (Huffaker’s) arrival.”

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